When animals do things we see as clever, is it the result of instinct, training, observation, a combination of those, or something else entirely? The three-part “NOVA” series “Inside Animal Minds,” premiering on PBS on April 9, seeks to answer that intriguing question as it puts animal intelligence to the test and reveals that they’re more like humans than we think.

“It's not a question of do animals think. It's how they think. And in this series, we are getting published studies and some new work about how we are exploring the animal mind. In many, many ways, we share so many things,” says Dr. Diana Reiss, professor of psychology at Hunter College, and an expert in dolphin cognition and communication.

The first episode, “Bird Genius,” gives new meaning to the phrase “bird brain.”

It illustrates how New Caledonian crows have evolved to make and use tools to obtain food, and stages puzzle-solving experiments with scrub jays, Gotham cockatoos and a pet raven named Bran. Lloyd Buck, a bird specialist and animal handler who has raised Bran since he was 10 days old, has always presented the bird with challenging problems to solve.

When Bran was able to retrieve a treat from a plastic water bottle by spinning around in less than 30 seconds, Buck crushed the bottle, creating an obstruction. Bran then immersed the bottle in water to float the food to the top, something he figured out completely on his own. “If there's the capacity for him to evolve his method further to refine, shortcut and make it easier and save energy and time, he will,” says Buck. 

In another experiment, Bran is able to solve a puzzle box in mere seconds, while two poodles — widely considered one of the most intelligent dog breeds — don’t even try to open it. But dogs have extraordinary abilities in other areas, as the second episode, "Dogs and Super Senses," reveals.

Kathryn Lord with a wolf

Dr. Kathryn Lord, a dog and wolf behavior expert, poses with a research subject.

Canines’ heightened sense of smell makes them able to gauge the passage of time. “A lot of dogs recognize that it's time for their owner to be home, or they seem to be aware before the person arrives that they're coming home. It's probably not exactly smelling time, but smelling changes that are occurring,” says Kathryn Lord, PhD, a dog and wolf development and behavior expert, explaining that dogs can sense human scent molecules in the air as they rise and fall. “They couldn't do it unless their sense of smell was so incredibly refined. They have so many hundreds of millions more receptors in their noses” than we do.

Functional MRI tests reveal that dogs’ brains respond to reward the same as human brains do, underscoring that it’s not just a case of Pavlovian stimulus-response as once thought, and they’re more sophisticated than we’ve given them credit for. Also compelling is a comparison between dogs and wolves on the evolutionary and intelligence scale.

While wolves have evolved the keen instinctual abilities to survive in the wild, “Dogs are very tuned in to us,” points out series producer Julia Cort. “They rely on us completely — from the time they are little puppies, and they get socialized to us and we are feeding them. They've lost a lot of the social structure that they had as wolves. Dogs evolved to survive off our garbage, and that's a lot less demanding than finding and killing a moose. They evolved to a much simpler, easier form of life, and they're winning as far as evolution goes. In that sense, dogs are brilliant because there are way more dogs in the world than there are wolves.”

Dolphin close up

The episode also touches on dolphin intelligence, which is explored, along with that of elephants and chimpanzees, in the third installment, "Who’s the Smartest?" Dolphins, with brains much larger than usual for animals their size, have complex social relationships, communication systems, and like elephants and chimps, can recognize their reflections.

“We used to think we were the only species that had the smarts to understand that's us in the mirror, but back in the 1970s, we found out that our closest relatives, the great apes, could also do it,” says Dr. Reiss. “You can't get much more different than us in terms of body form than dolphins, but you put a mirror in front of a dolphin, they figure it out it's themselves. Elephants do too. They start using the mirror as a tool like we do to look in their eyes, to look at the insides of their mouths, parts of their body they can't see without a mirror. They look at their genitals, like little kids do.”

Elephants inspect a skull of a fellow elephant

Other experiments highlight elephants’ ability to recognize — and seemingly, mourn over — the skeletons of dead comrades, and chimpanzee behavior that suggests they understand concepts like justice, fairness, charity and concern for others. So which is the smartest? That’s still up for debate. “Because they've evolved to survive in different niches and different habitats, they've evolved different kinds of intelligence, so you can't straight-up say this is smarter than this one,” says Lord. “They are better at different things, though, for certain. You could say this animal is way better at problem solving than this animal.”

“We see a lot of really ingenious developments in the animal world,” adds Dr. Reiss.  “One of the big issues is, ‘can we even recognize intelligence in other species if it's unlike our own?’ And that's really challenging. Maybe we're just stuck looking at intelligence in certain ways.” As the series, indicates, it’s an area we’ve just begun to explore.

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How smart are animals? 'NOVA' series aims to find out
The three-part “NOVA” series “Inside Animal Minds,” premiering on PBS on April 9, seeks to answer the intriguing question of animal intelligence.